[Column] Bob Koigi: Of coronavirus crisis and the silver lining for Africa
As the world haemorrhages and economies take a hit from the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic, the crisis is birthing opportunities and continues to create crucial lessons on resilience and adaptation especially in Africa where the real impact of the virus is yet to be felt even as the rest of the world struggle with flattening the virus curve.
But as companies world over alter their business mentalities and others tap into new opportunities, the difference between those that will rise above the calamity and those that will choke under it is pegged on how much they innovate and it is no different for Africa.
The tech disruption that has redefined the continent’s way of life and doing business in recent years now more than ever present numerous opportunities for companies and governments especially those remain laggards in adoption. As interactions and gatherings that are synonymous with Africa increasingly become replaced by social distancing and increased calls for stay-at-home, the booming tech landscape remains the greatest winner. A host of surveys indicate a recent huge uptick in online trading not just for B2Bs but among consumers.
And while this has traditionally been the case, even businesses that were traditionally not in this space, from small grocery shops to pharmacies, have been forced by circumstances to embrace the trend. Mobile money transfer platforms like MPESA have become the new payment normal as cash handling becomes increasingly discouraged to tackle COVID-19. Local-based tech startups have stepped up the ante as producers look for that crucial link to consumers who are now holed up in homes. While there is no telling how long it will take before the virus can be contained, the fact that a growing number of businesses, producers and consumers are embracing these innovations portends a trend and behavioural change way beyond the virus that will disrupt how businesses are carried out.
To the numerous startups across Africa, this new phenomenon now places them at a strategic position to innovate homegrown solutions that seek to address gaps that have become manifest with the virus outbreak.
And as the continent continuously invests in internet infrastructure to boost coverage, access and bridge digital divide, time is now ripe to explore the role of internet in Africa’s next transformation. In a recent Zoom conversation with my colleagues in various industries who are working from home, it was interesting to learn how this new model has had a tremendous shift in their perception of human interaction-that is a pivotal social construct in almost all societies, vis-à-vis the cost benefit analysis of waking up and jumping straight to your computer without the pain of being stuck in traffic.
African cities are known to have the worst traffic jams world over as urban population swells to unprecedented levels and vital infrastructure like roads remain largely underdeveloped. The result is billions of dollars going down the drain every year in lost productivity. In major African cities like Cairo, Lagos, Accra, Nairobi or Johannesburg studies indicate that drivers spend an average of 50 minutes stuck in traffic.
Yet since numerous countries called on companies to encourage staff to work from home, the cost attributed to traffic jams and fuel has considerably reduced, allowing both companies and workers to save. And while to many of the companies, virtual offices remain uncharted territories, this has offered vital lessons and opportunities on the future of work in Africa in the wake of tech renaissance and what this will mean for the continental economies.
But the limitless opportunities offered by tech also brings to light the urgent need to streamline the supply chains especially in sectors that contribute a bulk of their earnings to the continental purse among them agriculture, mining, banking and oil and gas. Addressing hiccups including bureaucracy, production, distribution and market dynamics is pivotal in jumpstarting these sectors and giving them the boost they require to rejigger our economies and create jobs for our people.
China, the epicenter of the CoronaVirus remains Africa’s largest trading partner with the continent heavily reliant on finished products from cars, electronics and industrial products. There is no telling the degree of damage the lockdown has had on industries and companies across the continent with factories looking at shutdowns and consequently looming job losses. Yet this situation is now presenting African governments with an opportunity to invest in local manufacturing whose lack of support has now seen it contribute less than 10 per cent to African countries’ GDPs.
This despite numerous studies pointing to the vital role the sector holds in transforming the continent to mid-level economic status. While there are numerous economic blueprints that have outlined glossy interventions especially by governments to transform manufacturing, that still remains a pipe dream. It is disheartening to see some African countries importing medical supplies of sanitizers and medical masks because they do not have the capacity to do that locally. The challenge the Coronavirus has posed to these countries also offers them key lessons to look inward in support of local industries.
Often touted as Africa’s demographic dividend, the youth, majority who remain unemployed despite their high skills set would come in handy especially during pandemics. When Ebola struck in Central and West Africa, the youth were at the forefront of fighting and containing the spread. From volunteering to establishing tech startups that created awareness of the disease, the young population proved itself that it was indeed a force to reckon with in the continent. Yet it remains underutilized and largely ignored.
The future of the continent will be shaped by how governments embrace the youth to drive it. Now more than ever, CoronaVirus has presented African governments with an opportunity to tap into the youth to offer the much needed support considering the continent has the largest population of young people in the world.
In the end it is the economies and the companies that learn how to adapt fast that will likely weather the virus and survive. It is time for Africa to realize the myriad of opportunities the virus presents and invest in them. After all when it comes to opportunities, one should never let a crisis go to waste.
Multiple award winning Kenyan journalist Bob Koigi is the Chief Editor of East Africa at Africa Business Communities